Yesterday brought a batch of news from the presidential campaigns in Iowa, where believe it or not, the first stage of the nominating contest will commence in about six months (and that’s if Iowa doesn’t move back a week in a shuffle caused by Florida’s legislation moving its primary back to January 29, or even further if New Hampshire decides to deal with all its competitors by moving back into this December, as is rumored to be a possibility).On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani (followed within hours by John McCain) announced he would skip the massive Straw Poll being held by the state GOP in August. This is actually a bigger deal than it sounds like. The Straw Poll isn’t some symbolic thing; about one-third of those who ultimately participate in the Caucuses are expected to show up, not exactly a group you want to diss. The news will feed earlier rumors that Rudy’s decided to downplay Iowa and NH and count on winning the nomination in the mega-primary of February 5.You have to figure McCain’s camp had already decided the Straw Poll was going to be a disaster for him, and leaped on Guilani’s announcement as a heaven-sent opportunity to turn a potentially humiliating defeat for the one-time frontrunner into an effort (probably futile) to convince the punditocracy that the Straw Poll has become meaningless without the participation of two of the “Big Three.”All this points to a big Mitt Romney win in the Straw Poll that would solidify his suddenly powerful status as the front-runner in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Maybe the downplaying of Iowa by Giuliani and McCain could create some space for a darkhorse like Mike Huckabee, but the Arkansan just ain’t got the money to play well in Iowa at this point; his campaign is also suffering from the perception that he’s auditioning for the second spot on somebody else’s ticket. And maybe Fred Thompson will come into Iowa forcefully to challenge Romney, but probably not, given his very late start; it’s more likely that he’ll make his first big push in South Carolina, where he’s already leading in at least one recent poll.Over on the Democratic side, the big Iowa news this week was that legendary organizer Teresa Vilmain was replacing the near-legendary organizer JoDee Winterhoff as Hillary Clinton’s campaign director in the state. The buzz is that the step was partially in response to Iowa blowback over a leaked memo from HRC’s deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, urging her to skip Iowa altogether. But more likely, the shift was in the works for a while; Vilmain, who was Tom Vilsack’s top strategist during his brief campaign, simply wasn’t available when Clinton first set up her Iowa operation.As it happens, the Washington Post today published a front-page piece about the campaign in Iowa in both parties. It includes a good description of the Caucus process, and a nifty chart on the byzantine interconnections of some of the top campaign operatives.
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.